Tasmanian musicians’ pay tribute to Leonard Cohen & Joni Mitchell
The Tasmanian Poetry Festival crew have done it again. Last year it was the Bob Dylan-Joan Baez Tribute Concert. This year it was a tribute to Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell that highlighted Tasmania’s musical talent.
MAYBE it was the music. Maybe it was the venue. Whatever it was, this year’s tribute concert to Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen had a distinctly different vibe to last year’s tribute to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
After the customary acknowledgement of country by Launceston poet and activist Rocelyn Ives, Tasmanian Poetry Festival president Colin Berry opened with a preview of the Festival’s events that the tribute concert was part of. Emcees for the evening were Festival’s committee members, Yvonne Gluyas and Joy Elizabeth, whose back-and-forth on stage was a sort-of comedy duo act in itself. Last year’s festival was at the Launceston Workers Club. This year’s filled the conference centre of Launceston’s Grand Chancellor Hotel with around 300 people. The tribute to Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, both Canadians, featured some of the Tasmanian musicians who performed in last years’ concert as well as some new people.
The performance poetry scene is very active in Tasmania, but… a poetry festival that features music? When I asked Yvonne — a local performance poet and member of the Tasmanian Poetry Festival’s organising team for the night’s event — about this last year she responded by saying that …
…songwriters are poets. The artists who are the focus of the tribute concert might put poetry to music, however it is still poetry even though it is sung and not recited.
A song to set the mood
What better way to set the mood for the evening than with Leonard Cohen’s classic 1984 song, Hallelujah, sung a cappella by the 30-member Launceston choir, Singcognito. Not released as a single at the time of its writing, the song was later boosted to popularity in Jeff Buckley’s version. Its timelessness has seen it performed by many artists including KD Laing who, like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, is a Canadian.
As if that wasn’t enough to prepare the audience for what was to come, the following performer was. Tasmanian singer-songwriter Lucie Thorne soulfully accompanied herself on electric guitar through three Joni Mitchell numbers — A Case of You, Night Ride Home and Amelia. Her’s was a moving performance, the simplicity of voice and skilfully-played electric guitar creating a powerful and emotionally-charged moment. A tall, slim woman with dark curly hair, Lucie continues the family musical tradition and its connection to the Tasmanian Poetry Festival. “Lucie Thorne’s parents were poet and founder of the Tasmanian Poetry Festival, Tim Thorne, and City Park Radio presenter — that’s Launceston’s community radio station — Stephanie Thorne”, Yvonne told me.
How to find performers
Let me step out of talking about the concert to ask Yvonne something that had been bugging me: how did she and co-organiser, Joy Elizabeth, know where to find these performers, scattered as they are along Tasmania’s Bass Strait coast and as far away as Hobart?
“Well… before Covid came to our shores I was working as an entertainer on the Spirit of Tasmania, the cross-Bass-strait ferry that makes the 12 or so hour journey from Melbourne to Devonport and back again. It was there I met a singer, Sheyana, who appeared at this and last year’s tribute concerts. Then it was a matter of following the links through the Tasmanian singer-songwriters network… one link led to another and to another and so on.
“Despite Tasmania’s small population there is a wealth of musical and poetic talent on the island. Local poets have had their work published in books. At the Festival’s events in Launceston, Hobart and Deloraine and other towns I’m constantly surprised by people of all ages getting up to perform. It’s the same with musicians… new performers pop up and surprise you with their talent. I’ve taken a chance, sight unseen, with a couple, but those have turned out to be great choices.”
Sheyana is a woman with long dark hair falling below her shoulders whose glasses sparkled with reflected light as she accompanied herself on acoustic guitar through three tracks including Leonard Cohen’s Lover Lover Lover and Joni Mitchell’s The Circle Game. She rose to musical prominence in Sri Lanka and has appeared in concerts with The Angels, Renee Geyer, Hoodoo Gurus and Neil Finn, among others.
Kim Nielsen-Creeley is one of these local talents that Yvonne speaks of:
Kim performed a reading of one of Leonard Cohen’s poems, In My Secret Life, at the concert. She was born in the West Coast mining town of Queenstown and recently had a book of poems published, called Roughly. It was inspired by her family history and connection with Tasmania’s distant places.
Did any of the audience not get Scott Haigh’s get-up of dark suit and hat as a look-alike reference to Leonard Cohen? Tall, young and the reputed author of around 900 songs and poems, you can catch Scott around the city’s bars and festivals. Scott’s set included the slow and melodic Leonard Cohen classic, Bird on a Wire, and a powerful rock version of his Tower of Song.
Style, grace and presence
“I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm…”. Edwina starts into the popular Leonard Cohen song of parting and sorrow as she packs a world of emotion into her performance, a product not only of her powerful voice but of her expressive body movement. As Edwina reached the song’s sad ending—“your eyes are soft with sorrow, Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye”—memories of first hearing the song released at end of 1967 must have arisen in the audience. For me, that was in a sharehouse in grotty old Woolloomooloo in the narrow valley squeezed between Sydney’s CBD and Potts Point/Kings Cross where, coincidentally or not, Yvonne Gluyas — the same Yvonne Gluyas who decades later became a performance poet and now works with the Tasmanian Poetry Festival — was also living. It was the summer of 1970.
I first heard Edwina Blush perform jazz numbers at an event in Sydney some years ago. To put it mildly, I was impressed. As at last year’s tribute concert for Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, here she was again at her best, this time accompanied by a band that she put together especially for the tribute concert. Going by the name of The Quick and the Dead, the band comprised Kath Ellis on bass and electric violin, Ben Birt on guitar and vocals, Raj Singha on guitar and bass, William Boden on drums and Edwina on vocals. As I sat there watching and listening I could see how the effort Edwina puts into her appearance marks her as a professional performer… her elegant green and blue dress, hairstyle, makeup… down to her bracelets, the silver ring in her finger and her bright red fingernails.
“I’ve always wanted to do Woodstock,” she said later after performing the classic Joni Mitchell song that came out of her early years as a performer. Incidentally, Joni didn’t make it to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in the August of 1969, better known simply as Woodstock, however she did write the song that came to memorialise the event and performed it for the first time at the Big Sur Folk Festival late in 1969.
And, to the classics
What kind of a tribute concert would it be without Leonard Cohen’s and Joni Mitchell’s classics? We had Singcognito with Hallelujah to open the concert. Then we were treated to Edwina Blush and her band with Joni’s Woodstock. And, towards the end, Edwina Blush and Daniel J Townsend gave us Suzanne, Both Sides Now and Big Yellow Taxi. Daniel is said to be the first songwriter to release an album as a podcast and has produced a spoken-work show inspired by his work with at-risk young men.
Popular numbers like these — and like The Times They are a’Changin and Mr Tambourine Man at last year’s tribute concert — reach back into the history of popular music and at the same time reach back in the audience’s memories of their own past to bring the music once again into the present and close the circle.
The circle. Let’s not forget Sheyana’s version of Joni Mitchell’s The Circle Game,published in 1970 on her album, Ladies of the Canyon. The album’s name is presumably a reference to the Laurel Canyon scene of the mid-to-late sixties and into the early seventies. So, given its prominence in the history of popular music, let’s see how Groovy History describes the scene from which Joni emerged:
Laurel Canyon. Rock stars, it seemed, had found their Shangri-La, an idyllic world where a group of disparate friends all grew together to become some of the best known artists of the 20th century. Artists like Joni Mitchell, The Eagles, The Monkees, and Crosby, Stills & Nash all lived within walking distance of one another and would routinely hang out and jam together into the wee hours of the morning. The Laurel Canyon rock star scene was, like the California sound many of them made famous, a mellow affair.”
The Circle Game was also performed by 1960s folk duo Ian & Sylvia and in 1967 by Buffy Sainte-Marie, as well as by Tom Rush in 1968.
Sitting, listening, dancing
All performance attracts a particular audience. The audience at the tribute concert was what you would expect of an event featuring the life work of two artists who started their careers in the 1960s. It was an older audience for the most part, people for whom Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell’s music was part of the soundtrack of their youth. Was the concert a nostalgia trip? Sure, in part. But it was more, a refreshingly new take on music that deserves the appellation of ‘classic’.
The audience — they came from as far afield as Devonport in the west and the Hobart area to the south, from interstate and, of course, from Launceston. It was surely the sign of the concert’s success when some of them got up and started dancing. The ticket price, too, was appreciated. One member of the audience was heard thanking an organiser for the AU$20/$15 ticket price that kept the event affordable. With the cost of concert tickets these days they seldom go out, she said.
This is the second time the Tasmanian Poetry Festival has organised a musical event as part of its festivities. It looks like a successful initiative and we wait to see what is in store for next year.
And the seasons, They go round and round… Joni could just as well have been singing of the Tasmanian Poetry Festival because it is now in its 38th year. The performers might come and go but the Festival is no passing phenomenon. This year’s early October events pay tribute to its founder, Tim Thorne.
Performers and their songs…
- Hallelujah-short version (Leonard Cohen).
- A Case of You (Joni Mitchell)
- Night Ride Home (Joni Mitchell)
- Amelia (Joni Mitchell).
Kim Nielsen Creeley
- reading of Leonard Cohen’s poem, In My Secret Life.
- Lover Lover Lover (Leonard Cohen)
- That Song About the Midway (Joni Mitchell)
- The Circle Game (Joni Mitchell).
- Bird on the Wire (Leonard Cohen)
- Happens to the Heart (Leonard Cohen)
- Everybody Knows (Leonard Cohen)
- Tower of Song (Leonard Cohen).
Kath Ellis and Ben Birt
- Dance me to the End of Love (Leonard Cohen)
- I Can’t Forget — Ben Birt on lead vocal (Leonard Cohen)
- Famous Blue Raincoat (Leonard Cohen)
- First we Take Manhattan (Leonard Cohen).
Edwina Blush (harmony with Kath Ellis and others)
- Woodstock (Joni Mitchell)
- Hey That’s no Way to Say Goodbye (Leonard Cohen)
- Chelsea Hotel (Leonard Cohen).
Daniel J Townsend
- The Anthem (harmony with Kath Ellis and others)
- Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell)
- Suzanne (Leonard Cohen)
- Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell).
- Hallelujah — long version (Leonard Cohen).
- ©Russ Grayson. CC-attribution/non-commercial/no-derivatives.
- ©Yvonne Gluyas (photo above).
Discover Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell…
Leonard Cohen—albums, books, news.
Joni Mitchell—bio, discography, albums, artwork and more.
Discover the musicians…
See a slide show of the performers.
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